“Without a following, potential thought leaders are simply people with good, or maybe even brilliant ideas, but that is all; they are not thought leaders. It’s like having a Facebook account with no friends in it.”    Rick Hubbard in Thought Leadership 2.0

In a couple of prior blog series (Character and Presence and Cultivating Character), I described two aspects to being a professional change facilitator:

  • What we do: The concepts, frameworks, processes, and techniques used when engaged with clients
  • Who we are: Our true nature—the substance of what we have to offer as human beings when interacting with clients

In my view, there is ample thought leadership devoted to what we do as change practitioners. Actually, there could never be enough, but those who are contributing to our profession’s advancement in this way have had, and will continue to have, a significant influence on extending the horizon of what is possible in our field. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the who we are side of our work.

To have the kind of trusted-advisor relationship with those we serve that creates real value, we must have both logical and emotional connections with them. Well-executed tools and techniques can impress a client’s intellect, but it takes a strong character and a trusting presence to speak to his or her heart. Character and presence separate those change technicians focused on submitting deliverables and meeting timelines from masterful practitioners who also provide valuable insight and wisdom to their clients. Yet the majority of time and energy allocated to professional development in our field centers on the concepts and frameworks in support of what we do, and not the introspective exploration required to delve into who we are as we engage in our activities.

As a result, most change practitioners haven’t invested much in exploring how they “show up.” It is understandable, then, why so little thought leadership has surfaced in this realm. This lack of attention to how our core nature affects our work first contributes to—and then combines with—the resulting scarcity of thought leadership. It forms a self-reinforcing cycle that hinders our profession from breaking out of the constraining orbit we have fashioned for ourselves. Until change practitioners view who they are on a par with what they do, our profession will not be able to break free and fully realize the value it is capable of creating.

The intent of this series is to issue a call to action for us as a professional community. It is time to step into a new era where we pursue more frequent and deeper investigations of how we show up when engaged in our work. We must also take more responsibility for creating thought leadership to support this aspect of our individual and collective development. That is, we need to be more vigilant about registering, documenting, and disseminating new perspectives about bringing our full selves into play when serving as change advisors.

Greater awareness of the importance that character and presence play in practicing our craft will lead to a corresponding increase in related thought leadership, which, in turn, will foster greater awareness. I believe these two components, when combined, can gain enough momentum to break free from the stifling impact on our effectiveness that results when a disproportionate amount of our developmental energy goes toward advancing what we do. Awareness and thought leadership are essential links to forming a self-reinforcing cycle that can help propel us toward living up to our individual and collective professional potential.   

What Is Thought Leadership?

Maybe the best place to begin is by describing what thought leadership isn’t. There are numerous activities in which people can engage that might qualify them as an authority in a specialized field such as ours. However, that does not mean they are thought leaders. 

None of the following make you a thought leader in the field of change execution:

  • You have practiced your craft for many years and/or are considered by some to be an expert in the field. (There is more to it than being good at what you do.)
  • You publish articles, books, or blogs. (Being prolific isn’t enough.)
  • You deliver speeches or present at conferences. (Being an interesting and/or entertaining speaker doesn’t make you a thought leader.)
  • You sometimes refine pre-existing concepts, frameworks, or tools (yours or someone else’s) that became popular in the market place. (Thought leadership isn’t about augmenting what is already available, it’s about opening up new space—revealing unclaimed territory.)
  • People find your perspectives informative and/or useful. (Instructors provide value through training, and technicians by solving problems, but that doesn’t make them thought leaders.)
  • You are a source for innovative thinking but only if everything is tightly protected within your proprietary boundaries. (Thought leadership is about sharing with other practitioners, not granting access only to your own clients or associates.)
  • You once had a stroke of genius that contributed in some way to advancing the profession but have had little pioneering influence since then. (Thought leadership is based on an extensive collection of work, not on gaining some notoriety with one success and then continuing to ride that horse long after it is dead.)
  • You create what you believe are brilliant new contributions to the field but:
    • Other change practitioners don’t notice, OR
    • What you offer becomes popular and is commercially successful but fails to evoke much new thinking.
  • You plagiarize someone else’s thinking and pass it off as your own original work to people who don’t know any better. (I regret having to include this, but it happens too frequently for us to ignore it.)
  • You claim the designation of thought leader for yourself. (Declaring yourself a thought leader or having someone who works for you refer to you that way doesn’t make it so.)

Some of what I’ve included in this listing may come as a surprise. Many people assume that expertise, publishing, speechmaking, notoriety, innovation, and/or commercial success can secure a position as a thought leader. In my opinion, this is not the case. Although thought leaders are typically associated with these distinctions, the characteristics alone don’t justify the title. The bar for authentic thought leadership is set at a much higher level. 

Now let’s look at what really makes you a thought leader:

  • You break new ground—Thought leadership in our field is provided by those who pioneer previously unexplored aspects to existing areas of the profession or open completely new areas of pursuit.
  • You disrupt the norm—Thought Leaders don’t seek widespread acceptance for the perspectives they share. They pursue a better understanding of the issues and dynamics that reside at the edge of our profession or underneath what hasn’t been openly discussed in the past. What they talk and write about is often edgy and makes recipients uncomfortable because the current way of thinking/operating is questioned.   
  • You are a source of wisdom—Thought leaders provide access to levels of perception, depth of understanding, degrees of discernment, sage guidance, etc. that isn’t accessible through normal channels. 
  • You influence peers—Earning this level of regard isn’t about impressing the uninformed. It is fine to astound clients, but thought leadership means being recognized among professional peers as a reliable source for penetrating questions, insightful interpretations, cutting-edge ideas, prototype developments, and unique applications.
  • You impact people beyond your primary constituency—Thought leaders have a range of influence that extends past those whom they directly affect. There are secondary, tertiary, or even more tiers of people who benefit as their perspectives are passed on by others.
  • You advance the profession—Thought leadership carries with it a responsibility to create advantages for the entire professional community, not just for the developer and his or her clients. It requires that all practitioners—colleagues and competitors alike—benefit from the new thinking.
  • You inspire others—Those who value the views of thought leaders shouldn’t just be better informed or prepared to address specific challenges as a result of the influence. They should, at least occasionally, be moved to want to raise their game to a higher level.
  • You are dedicated to sharing what you know—Thought leaders are motivated, not by displaying their knowledge, but by seeing those they influence grasp and use what they offer. It is better yet if recipients can expand on the perspectives transferred and take those ideas or guidance to a new level beyond what the thought leader originally had in mind.
  • You consistently discover and create—Thought leaders gain their following based on a cumulative body of work, not an occasional home run that gains attention for a short period.
  • You remain humble—Thought leaders accept that others look to them as sources for ideas and interventions that push the envelope, but they don’t allow this to become an ego block to their own continued learning. These are people who hold deep convictions about the lessons they’ve learned while remaining embarrassed at how little they really know. 
  • You are considered a thought leader by others—The moniker of thought leader can’t be declared on oneself. It can’t be purchased, self-proclaimed, or artificially manufactured in any way—it must be earned in the eyes of others and conferred by them or it isn’t the real deal.

If it sounds like the bar to qualify as a genuine thought leader is high, it’s because it is. If it appears out of reach for most people, this is true as well, but not necessarily because of a lack of capability. Many people have the requisite knowledge, skill, experience, and insight to fill a thought leader’s role but choose not to, due to the time and effort it takes or because what they possess that could benefit the entire profession might lessen a competitive advantage they feel they have by keeping it to themselves. The fact that true thought leadership is difficult to achieve and not even within one’s control doesn’t mean there aren’t other avenues for “thought value” contribution. There are several options for advancing our profession’s maturation that are not as demanding as thought leadership and generate significant value for our field. These will be discussed in the next post.

My point here is that we need to be clear about what thought leadership is and isn’t if we are going to address what I believe is a gaping hole in our professional community’s advancement potential. Every year, we generate an unending stream of state-of-the-art thinking related to what we do (framework, techniques, etc.) but there is very little thought leadership available devoted to who we are. It is my hope that, in the future, there will be both more engagement around how we show up as change practitioners and a corresponding increase in thought leadership to support this aspect of our work.

In the next post, I’ll explore the relevancy of thought leadership as a part of the character and presence necessary for the effective practice of our craft.